Letter to Govt. pt3: Should councils publish newspapers? A response to the Media Committee

As part of a group response to  the government‘s inquiry into the future of local and regional media, Paul Bradshaw looks at the role of local authorities in regional journalism. Blog comments will be submitted to the inquiry as well as the blog posts.

So. The Committee for Culture, Media and Sport want responses on “The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level”

The question of what public sector bodies should be allowed to publish, how that affects local journalism, the local economy, and local democracy, is one of the most difficult to resolve – not least because it involves so many interconnected elements.

The first problem is that any discussion runs the risk of conflating a number of separate but interlinked elements:

  • local councils and local democracy are not the same thing; 
  • local newspapers and local journalism are also two different things.

Whatever model emerges must recognise that papers are not the only places where public discussion takes place, and print journalists are not the only people holding power to account.

We must not prop up newspapers at the expense of the opportunity to support other emerging forums of public engagement. Any question about the future of local media must acknowledge that ‘local media’ now includes any number of blogs, websites, forums, social networks and other, distributed, media. 

As local citizens increasingly receive their ‘news’ from those forms of media, and local journalists increasingly rely on those to understand the concerns of local people, the actions of public sector bodies need to be responsive and supportive of that.

The economic role

Equally, while newspapers have an important role to play in local economies, we should not ignore the growing number of independently owned local print and online publications that have the potential to provide another source of economic growth. 

In other words, just as local newspapers protested at the potential effect BBC Local might have on their markets, we should be aware of how support for local newspaper chains might undermine the efforts of less vocal, independent news operations.

Council newspapers

The same economic argument is used to criticise the increasing number of local authorities publishing newspapers of their own.

The Local Government Association recently released research claiming council magazines were “not a threat to local media” – a useful survey, but the way it is reported by the LGA demonstrates the dangers of allowing local authorities to report on their own activities.

The statistic “Almost 60 per cent of council publications contain 10 per cent or less of advertising” is framed as part of the case that local magazines are not a threat. A casual reader would swallow that. A critical writer would point out that this means a very significant 40% of council publications carry reasonably large amounts of advertising – and even those carrying less than 10% of advertising are still having an economic impact on local newspapers. Not mentioned is whether there is an increasing trend towards carrying more advertising, which anecdotally looks to be the case

The move into council newspapers is a move to cut out the middleman, with little obvious benefit for local citizens: for the reasons given above it is unlikely to be informing in any meaningful sense, and even less likely to hold its paymasters to account.

The financial implications are concerning: there is the drain on public funds of of publication and distribution. There is the negative economic impact of reallocating communications and marketing budgets that might otherwise go towards local media. If indeed “People deserve to know what their council tax is being spent on” then there should be restrictions on how council newspapers do that: just the facts, please. No spin, no adverts. They used to call them leaflets.

Rather than publishing pre-packaged, pre-selected information, one way local councils could make a major difference is through publishing information in formats that make it as easy as possible for users to build media of their own from, i.e. ‘mash up’. Examples of this would include:

  • RSS feeds of newly published documents
  • Documents ‘tagged’ with key names, places, organisations, etc.
  • The ability for users to tag documents themselves
  • The ability for users to comment on or annotate documents
  • Full audio or video of council meetings, etc.
  • Use of microformats
  • Use of free platforms that support some of the above technologies, e.g. WordPress, Twitter, Delicious

For newspapers, this would provide an efficiency not just in newsgathering (a key way to help reporters find the information they need, quickly, to interrogate it and make connections), but also production and distribution (RSS feeds and tags, for example, can be easily filtered, aggregated and mashed up).

Equally, because this makes it easier for web users to interrogate information, it helps facilitate local amateur and startup media production, including those members of the local community that journalists are increasingly relying upon to do this work.

This is obviously not to say that anyone will be able to use the data in these ways, only that it makes it possible for a wider number of people than before to create media – and to distribute it. The nature of the web is such that it also becomes easier for a wider group of people to find out about that media, and to become engaged with local issues on a social level.

In fact, there’s already an open source platform available that local authorities could look at which releases information in this way – EveryBlock.

But this is not a technical solution to a social problem, but an organisational and cultural solution. It is about openness. 

Automate, aggregate and distribute

And if councils are serious about informing their citizens I think they could go further still. They could publish relevant stories alongside their council webpages. 

If a user is on the council website planning applications page, why not have a feed from local news websites and a selection of top local blogs that have relevant tags? That information is more than likely going to be more readable and informative than the council’s own version, so it is fulfilling the council’s own stated aim of ‘informing the public’ at no extra cost. It is also helping to distribute the news and drive traffic to local news websites (a virtual version of Craig McGill’s suggestion that binmen deliver the news), not to mention the possibility of newspapers selling advertising into those feeds. 

This needn’t be limited to the council website: local authorities distribute information electronically in all kinds of ways – emails to staff, information to bus stops, text messages, local digital TV – providing a future possibility of further automated distribution.

You then have a built-in incentive for local news organisations to cover local government (needless to say this should be enshrined somehow so that councils cannot hold news organisations to ransom).

Anyway, I’ve said enough. It’s a complex area – what should local authorities do?

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21 thoughts on “Letter to Govt. pt3: Should councils publish newspapers? A response to the Media Committee

  1. Nell Darby

    I’ve worked both as a journalist and as a council press officer, responsible for many council publications. In the latter job, I had to write and edit newsletters and magazines for local people and had local councillors pressurising me to include stories designed to portray them in the most positive light possible. Many failed to see that the objective of these publications was to inform people, as you write, as to what their council tax (for example) was being spent on – but instead used this public money to wage a PR battle with each other and to score points. This is still the case with many council newsletters I see today, and a fundamental problem with the idea of having councils produce newspapers for the community. Objectivity would be difficult to achieve.

    However, the idea of councils using online platforms to disseminate news is also problematic. In my area, there have been a few attempts by town, district and county councils to disseminate news via blogs, a web forum or by linking to news sites. These have been viewed with suspicion by many residents I have talked to; either they distrust the news they are being given, or they think the way it is written is so dry and uninteresting that they prefer to get information from other sources.

    Many people in my small, rural town use a website and forum set up by a PR-savvy town councillor to get their news. It is updated several times a day and discussions are set up about local news issues. Councillors from all tiers of local government monitor it and respond to criticisms on it – or clarify rumours on it. It offers headlines and collates news stories about the area from all the local newspapers, as well as detailing planning decisions and other decisions made by local councils that impact on the town. Often, the first locals hear of a story is from the website. It is not objective, but the webmaster makes clear his biases. These seem to be understood by the site’s audience and doesn’t deter others from offering their own views or criticising the webmaster’s. The fact that the website is run on a voluntary basis and takes in information from several different sources, whilst enabling the local community to have their say in a realtime environment, seems to account for its popularity. I’m not sure a council-run initiative would be able to achieve the same success.

    Reply
  2. paulbradshaw

    Thanks Nell – I wasn’t proposing that councils use online platforms to disseminate their own news, but to publish information where others can have the discussion you mention. As you point out (and enormous thanks for doing so), this does run the risk that spin is used once again, but with comments it is possible for users to provide a counter argument (assuming that the council doesn’t vet comments to their taste – again, procedures for any moderation need to be clear and binding to councils).

    Also, that they use their existing distribution infrastructure as a platform for news produced by others, for instance local newspapers and bloggers (without the editorial choices that the website you mention makes). In other words, automated aggregation.

    Reply
  3. Nigel Barlow

    You make some good points Paul, especially the fact that newspapers are not necessarily the way that people want to recieve news about local democracy and other new media methods should be investigated.

    For me though the fundamental problem is not the distribution of the news whether it is done by councils,bloggers or newsites but the interest in it.

    We seem to hark back to a “golden age” when local newspapers held local polititians to account.

    I don’t believe that this was ever the case.Local politics has only ever interested a small amount of people.That is a fault of the system and a fault of democracy in general.

    Circulating content by whatever means of distribution to as many people as possible is not going to change that relationship.

    Anything “published” under the banner of a local council will inevitably end up in most people’s bins be those electronic or plastic.

    Don’t get me wrong,it is important that democracy is scrutinised but it is not the pressures on local and regional papers that has stopped this from happening,it is simply that it doesnt sell newspapers.

    Reply
  4. paulbradshaw

    Fair point. I’ve been mulling over the idea that the no.1 thing that makes for healthy newspapers sales is healthy engagement with local issues. So how do we improve engagement? By using Google-style textual analysis to ‘serve up’ news and information based on what people are talking about and searching for? I’m not sure.

    But if the councils published their information in a way that made it possible for people to slice and dice it in innovative ways, at least we’d have a stage to try some solutions…

    Reply
  5. Nigel Barlow

    Can you really see that local councils would have the skill set to innovate and respond to what the electorate want though Paul?

    Even if there are people working within the councils with these skills could innovation flourish?

    I really do think that it is important to get a strong message across but I don’t believe that the councils are the best people to do this.

    I think that we have to look at the models that are working at a national political level with bloggers and national newspaper opinion writers holding Westminster to account

    Reply
  6. Simon Clarke

    I really not happy with the idea that local councils might move into being a Tass-style government-run media owner/publisher – not least because that’s not what I pay local taxes for. The idea that such publications would be self-financing is a non-starter I think; let’s face it, if publishing businesses can’t make the economics of newspaper publishing work, I doubt if local – or any kind of – government can.

    But the notion that local councils can use their web presence to boost transparency has merit. After all, local government has a remit for a communications function and this would be an extension of that.

    Of course, the Telegraph/Twitter debacle might preclude direct feeds from external sources on council web pages. Otherwise you’d have to let councils vet content – which then brings you rather too close to partiality and potential political bias. Far better, I think, to ensure council information os open and available to all and then let the online “market” make use of it as it sees fit.

    These days the costs of entry to the publishing market are so low that anyone with access to a computer and the internet can be a publisher (and you don’t have to own one – you can be in the local library and get access for free). Obviously this means a lot of dreck goes online, but it democratises scrutiny in a way that we have never seen before in the media.

    Given the poor quality of what passes for the local press these days (which are really mainly a vehicle for local advertising), I’m really not that bothered about the step change we seem to be facing in the media, local or otherwise…

    Reply
  7. Edward Welsh

    If you want to know who is responsible for councils producing their own magazine, then look no further than us, the Local Government Association.
    For more than three years now, we have been running the reputation campaign which aims to encourage councils to improve their communications with residents. More than 250 councils have signed up to the campaign, a key part of which is to produce a magazine.
    This is why. Our research shows that two-thirds of residents know nothing or next to nothing about local government. By this, I don’t just mean that they are unaware of committee structures or what’s the difference between a portfolio holder and a back bencher. What I mean is that they have no idea what services are available, who to complain to if something goes wrong, nor where their council tax is going.
    This produces the biggest moans about local government: “Where does my council tax go when my council only empties the bins and issues parking tickets?” The reality is that a typical council is actually involved in 800 different activities, 24/7 delivering a range of services to keep you safe, look after where you live and work, and care for your loved ones.
    Being oblivious to 798 of these services is bad for people who need them. Such as an elderly woman who requires help in her home, a mum looking for something to do with her children in the holiday, or a resident with a noisy neighbour.
    It’s also bad for democracy. Your counicl tax goes on these services. You should know how it’s spent and that the services you use or need are provided by a political institution which you can influence through the ballot box. If you don’t like us, vote us out. And who would you prefer mkaing decisions; a suit in Whitehall or someone in a council office on your local high street?
    While local government has been improving in leaps and bounds — according to the Treasury’s own figures — councils have been struggling to up their game when it comes to informing their residents about what they do.
    In the 19th century, councils went to great length to stamp their mark on the new sewerage or street lighting they were building. But somewhere in the 1980s and 1990s, they lost their confidence to say boldly “THIS IS A COUNCIL SERVICE WHICH YOU PAY FOR”.
    That is why the LGA is encouraging councils to make sure all their services are branded, that they provide an A-Z of what’s on offer, work more effectively with the media, improve their internal communications with staff and, yes, produce a magazine.

    And here’s the evidence backing up the campaign: http://reputation.lga.gov.uk/lga/aio/1308005

    Reply
  8. David Walker

    We lack data to test the propositions in the preceding posts. For instance, we don’t know much about how people learn about local affairs (media vs word of mouth). But we do know they tend to separate ‘civic’ information from news about locality – births, deaths and marriages – and apply strict tests on the credibilty and trustworthiness of public information: not all government sources are rated the same. Some of the posts above simultaneously exaggerate the public’s interest in the formalities of local government (a perennial but far from recent issue) and under-estimate the public’s capacity to distinguish between sources.
    One thing contributors to this stream can rest assured: councils will feel under some pressure to evaluate any new ventures in communication, and this could produce useful evidence. The advocates of the local press (often mythologised) tend to argue by assertion rather than evidence, so data should be welcome.
    Two attributes of councils are worth noting. One is that they required to be strictly neutral in what they present to the public and several watchdogs are on the case. The normal play of local politics is usually enough to prevent abuses but if it doesn’t the law and regulators have a role.
    Another is that many councils have tried to build ‘scrutiny’ into the way they operate, which underpins political pluralism. Interesting the public in the nuances of policy evaluation or assessing how well services are delivered is another matter which preceded the debate about the demise of the local press and looks likely to survive efforts to provide alternatives to defunct local newspaper titles.

    David Walker
    Managing Director, Communications, Audit Commission

    Reply
  9. Mark Glaser

    Paul,
    This is a great roundup, and very serendipitous that it was published on the same day I posted “Building the Ideal Community Information Hub” over at PBS MediaShift: http://bit.ly/3Xyh4

    The interesting difference is the “council publications” in the UK that sound like government-run media outlets. I don’t think people would want that in US, and that’s where things might get tricky over here. I think there should be an important distinction between government publishing its data and making it available for mash-ups and the like, and for the public and media to take that information and use it as they wish.

    However, what I found in my research was that people in US communities want a mix of mediums: online, print, TV, radio — old and new. So keep that in mind when you’re formulating your own plans in the UK.

    Let’s keep in touch on this meme as it develops because I think we could definitely learn more from each other.

    Best,
    Mark

    Reply
  10. David

    I agree with Edward’s notion that council’s need to do something to improve the understanding of what they do, but if that’s all these magazines did, then that would be fine.
    But it’s not.
    Many of these magazines or newspapers end up pushing out the line the ruling party of the council wants to see out there, normally out of frustration form these councillors at the fact the local newspaper/radio station/tv station/community website has refused to accept its spin.
    I know of one local council which used to turn over a page every issue to a column called “fact and fiction” which was supposed to correct myths apparently out in the community. What this actually meant was the chief executive putting out his version of events through a medium which meant he was unchallenged.
    Even without these “newspapers” – and it would be interesting to see facts and figures on how well-read and trusted these are by the local community – councils have, for a long time, tried to use their financial clout to control the local media.
    Lancashire County Council repeatedly threatened to pull advertising from the Lancashire Evening Post several years ago because it didn’t like the “negative” stories in the paper. It didn’t seem to realise that by threatening to pull this advertising, it was reducing the chance of people in Preston of seeings its jobs, or the very services which the LGA now says councils needs to produce magazines to make sure local people know what they do.
    Ironically, one big council in Lancashire built up its own newspaper business model on attracting advertising from the local daily paper to its own publication. Its own publication only comes out once a month, and it didn’t take long for departments to realise it took much longer to get jobs filled as a result, and that the quality of applicants was much, much lower.
    Put simply, people trust an independent media much more than they do something which is obviously funded by a council.
    So, what’s the way forward? Safeguards from government which stipulate advertising must go beyond the council’s own publications (which opposition parties will normally refer to as propaganda) would be a start – with the councils tasked to prove they are reaching the audience they need to, be it via the local newspaper, a local website, the local radio station, a hyper-local site or widely-read blogger.

    Reply
  11. Marc Schmid

    Interesting article Paul, one that will give us much food for though as we ponder our future comms strategy. There are some points that need to be aired however as to how we have ended up at the point where government ministers are intervening in this debate. From the council perspective much damage has been done by those Councils who are obviously trying to produce a product that in essence is attempting to portray itself as independent of the Council and is often branded accordingly. To me this is driven not by a desire to inform but instead to compete with the local newspaper and at the same time income generate. There is simply no need to go this far but by doing so they have prodded the beast – a beast with powerful friends in government, the media and the opposition. Most Councils have been producing decent newspapers which fool no-one as to who produces it. In many areas the local newspaper actually prints the product to offset the loss of income from council job adverts etc. It is in these areas that the argument that council papers has caused the demise of local newspapers struggles as the suffering in these parts is due not only to the economic climate but from decisions to close local news offices and scrap local community pages and correspondents. Short term decisions with little regard to the long term impact on the paper’s important community role. My fear is that whilst we are looking at ways of meeting the challenges of informing citizens and at the same time supporting the newspaper as a local employer and healthy check on what the Council does, we are going to find ourselves bound by a knee-jerk decision by a government or opposition party based on arguments founded around the battle between some poor decision making by some Councils or the vested interests of multi-national newspaper groups.

    Reply
  12. Jason Cobb

    Lambeth Council’s fortnightly Lambeth Life has fallen into the trap of believing that it is a stand alone news publication, and not a medium for communicating council policy to the electorate. A recent edition carried the front page lead ‘reporting’ on concerns that local newspapers were carrying ads for massage parlours in the area:

    [PDF]

    http://www.lambeth.gov.uk/NR/rdonlyres/4A747E5F-E730-452D-ACB7-076B817F3CED/0/LL68.pdf

    Fair point. The South London Press was the clear target here, and it clearly does itself no favours by having a full page each week for local prostitutes trading as adult massage.

    But is this really worthy of a front page splash in the council tax financed information sheet? Where is the benefit to the electorate in such a cheap dig at a publication that Lambeth Life clearly sees as a rival?

    Competition in the market is healthy, both in terms of advertising, and more importantly, in terms of chasing down news leads. The introduction of Lambeth Life into the local news distribution chain however has led to the South London Press changing a previous objective editorial stance towards Lambeth Council to launching a sustained attack on the local council across most issues.

    There is no reporting of the facts, just a tit for tat onslaught as each rival publication lays into one another.

    Ultimately it is the electorate that suffers, as well as democracy and local politics.

    Reply
  13. RickWaghorn

    Having watched something of a bitch-fest unfold between the LGA and the Soc of Editors unfold at the Local Media Summit on Tuesday, I think there is a danger that such local council newspapers that there are could be something of a red herring in this whole debate…

    Yes, some over step the mark. Was Kent CC TV money well spent? Probably not.

    But if any of us wear our local council tax-payer hat, why should I subsidise the local papers twice to publish local planning applications that Shirkey-esque, MySociety, web logic tells us should be free to view online…

    Why should S Norfolk District Council not add an appropriate #NR14 tag to a planning application and let whoever ‘catch’ it out there on the web as opposed to paying for that advert to be placed in the back pages of the Beccles & Bungay Journal; and then for me to pay a second time for the privilege of seeing it when I cough 60p per week at the newsagents…

    The fact that the Newspaper Soc et al are making such a fuss about the loss of one advert for one footpath deviation – or, indeed, councils daring to advertise jobs online and elsewhere – speaks more about the desperate straits that the newspapers have found themselves in than an insidious campaign by local councils to push their local newspapers over a cliff.

    Some go too far; no doubt.

    But, in every likelihood, that can simply be because there’s an empty playing field in front of them…

    … and armed with no more than a lap-top and a mobile phone, any council PR person is now a digital publisher. And one that doesn’t have to pay for a paper boy every night; tis all-but free.

    Anyone who seeks to impose an answer on the web – ie, we are the only possible repository for planning applications, local council job ads etc… doesn’t ‘get’ it.

    Or rather they all ‘get’ it. They just wish the rest of us didn’t for a little while longer…

    Reply
  14. Ben Hobson

    I think newspapers need to stop concentrating their energy on preventing more competition, and focus on what they do best – journalism. Good journalism will always sell, and I believe the public sees council newspapers for what they are – propaganda. Here’s Lancashire County Council’s offering (pdf)
    http://www.lancashire.gov.uk/corporate/vision/downloads/apr09web.pdf
    I feel there is a mentality in newspapers now that we must protect ourselves from further competition, but this is just wasted energy. If local newspapers have a reputation for good journalism, local councils producing their own newspapers will not alter this. Newspapers should stick to what they do best.

    Reply
  15. Marc Schmid

    Sensible Councils recognise the difference between a Council newspaper and the local independent newspaper. My problem with this debate is that all councils are being tarred by the actions of a few who have gone beyond simply informing citizens to instead realising the economic benefit of using their publications to income generate. As a head of comms my team runs a newspaper and we have some ex-journalists who contribute to it. However, it never claims to be anything other than a council newspaper. It allows us to focus on low level news about services that would never make it into the local paper but we ensure it is well written so people read it. If we just produced leaflets for every service this would cost a fortune and would not get to every household. We never seek to draw anything away from the local paper who we still offer exclusives to and post our public noticed with despite the cost. The primary reason being that we regard our local paper as any other local employer and as such have no interest in seeing them closing and the local staff being thrown on to the dole. Councils need to recognise that whether they like it or not the local newspaper is an important employer and a healthy check on what the council does and more importantly on any abuses that may ever occur. I am a taxpayer too and would hope that any mistakes by my council are reported by the local paper in my area, perhaps some people have forgotten that.

    Reply
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  18. James Goffin

    @Edward Welsh: The “evidence” that backs up your campaign says that “the more informed residents feel, the more popular the council”. You could argue that shows propaganda works.
    Clear branding of council services is one thing, setting up rival businesses is another. Given that some of the London boroughs are spending over £50k on publications, I’d be interested to see how much of this work is being out to tender.

    @David Walker: You say there’s little data to test the situation but go on to imply that everything will be ok because of the cut and thrust of local politics and that the kindly uncles at the regulators are looking on. I’d hope for a little more cynicism from the Audit Commission.

    @Rick Waghorn: South Norfolk Council *do* post all planning applications online, though searchable by parish rather than postcode (and PlanningAlerts.com provides a more accessible alternative). Many journalists use rather than object to these services, but they are very different from putting out a fully-fledged paper as happens in some areas. Would you be as blase if Norwich City Council decided it would be a good public service to put out a free Canaries newsletter to every home?

    Reply
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